Saturday, February 25, 2017
With House Bill 985 (the "Fairness" in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017), the controversy over current class action practice has escalated. I've been an outspoken critic of the cozy relationships that plaintiffs' lawyers and defense lawyers have developed not only in class actions, but in multidistrict litigation, too. Yet, as I (along with a number of other academics) have discussed, HR 985 doesn't fix what's ailing the system. Instead, it seeks to eliminate most class actions, tramples bipartisan consensus in the appellate courts and federal rules committee, and ineptly tells judges how to do their jobs.
This past January, I attended a conference at Tel Aviv University called Fifty Years of Class Actions--A Global Perspective. As part of that conference, I wrote a paper titled Publicly Funded Objectors, which calls for data collection and suggests that if the U.S. is truly serious about fixing what ails class actions, then it needs to publicly fund those who police them best--nonprofit organizations. I posted the paper on SSRN today.
Now that we have 50 years of class action practice under our belt, we know that practice suggests the need for tune-ups: sometimes judges still approve settlements rife with red flags, and professional objectors may be more concerned with shaking down class counsel than with improving class members’ outcomes. The lack of data on the number of opt-outs, objectors, and claims rates fuels debates on both sides, for little is known about how well or poorly class members actually fare. This reveals a ubiquitous problem—information barriers confront judges, objectors, and even reformers.
Rule 23’s answer is to empower objectors. At best, objectors are a partial fix. They step in as the adversarial process breaks down in an attempt to resurrect the information-generating function that culture creates. And, as the proposed changes to Rule 23’s handling of objectors reflect, turmoil exists over how to encourage noble objectors that benefit class members while staving off those that namely seek rents from class counsel.
Our class-action scheme is not the only one that relies on private actors to perform public functions: citizens privately fund political campaigns, and private lobbyists provide research and information to lawmakers about public bills and policies. Across disciplines, the best responses to those challenges have often been to level up, not down. As such, this Essay proposes a leveling up approach to address judges’ information deficit such that they can better perform their monitoring role. By relying on public funds to subsidize data collection efforts and nonprofit objectors’ information-gathering function, we can disrupt private class counsel’s disproportionate influence.
Put simply, we keep the baby and just throw out the bathwater.
Tuesday, February 21, 2017
Academics have been busy this week providing commentary on HR 985, the "Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017." Here's a round-up of the commentary thus far (and please do let me know if I've missed someone).
John Coffee (Columbia): Download Coffee - How Not to Write a Class Action “Reform” Bill _ CLS Blue Sky Blog
Howard Erichson (Fordham): Download Erichson-hr985-letter
Myriam Gilles (Cardozo): Download Gilles Letter to James Park on HR 985
And mine, Elizabeth Chamblee Burch (Georgia): Download Burch Final Comments on Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act
For those of you who like up to the minute commentary, several academics and reporters keep very active twitter accounts that track the bill: @adam_zimmerman, @elizabethcburch, @HowardErichson, @PerryECooper
Saturday, February 18, 2017
Class actions and MDL have real problems that need fixing. I have written about these problems at length, most recently in Aggregation as Disempowerment. But the new bill that just passed the House Judiciary Committee does not fix any of the real problems. Instead, it is a crass attempt to undermine any effort by plaintiffs to seek justice in mass disputes.
The bill, H.R. 985, the "Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017," seeks to reduce defendants' exposure to liability for mass harms by tightening the standard for class certification, imposing an ascertainability requirement, delaying the payment of class counsel fees, limiting the use of issue class actions, expanding diversity jurisdiction, mandating Lone Pine orders in MDL, banning trials in MDL, and capping MDL personal injury attorneys' fees at 20%, among other things. As Beth Burch noted, the bill does not make things fairer for those who have been wronged.
I would like to see thoughtful reforms to help courts distinguish meritorious from non-meritorious claims. I would like to see thoughtful reforms to protect claimants from unfair settlements in both class actions and MDL. And I would like to see thoughtful reforms to ensure that fees reflect what lawyers actually accomplish, not inflated settlement valuations. The abuses in class actions and non-class mass litigation happen mostly in settlement, not litigation and adjudication. But that is not what this bill would address. Instead, its provisions are aimed mostly at protecting defendants from the kinds of class actions and mass litigation that actually empower consumers, employees, citizens, and others to fight corporate and government wrongdoing.
Even where the bill aims at real problems (such as its provision to expand diversity jurisdiction to reach plaintiffs suing diverse defendants but who join with a non-diverse plaintiff), it goes too far, failing to match its solution to the problem of magnet jurisdiction in nationwide mass disputes.
In my letter to Congressional leaders, I attempt to explain which of the provisions of H.R. 985 are especially problematic, and why. If you're interested, you can find the letter here:
Monday, February 13, 2017
The U.S. House of Representatives is considering a bill that would substantially curtail the usefulness of class actions and multidistrict litigation, but would not make things "fairer" for class members.
Alison Frankel has a great write-up on the proposal that includes my preliminary comments along with Professor Myriam Gilles's comments. I'm heartened that representatives are reaching out to academics, because I have a number of concerns with the bill's proposals. If you are likewise concerned, then you should weigh-in, too. The House is marking up the bill on Wednesday.
My comments are available here: Download Final Comments on Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act
Tuesday, December 27, 2016
Sunday, September 18, 2016
Professors Andrew Bradt (UC Berkeley Law) and D. Theodore Rave (U. Houston Law) have posted to SSRN their article, The Information-Forcing Role of the Judge in Multidistrict Litigation, Cal. L. Rev. (forthcoming). Here is the abstract:
In this article, we address one of the most controversial and current questions in federal civil procedure: What is the proper role of the judge in the settlement of mass-tort multidistrict litigation, or MDL? Due to the Supreme Court’s hostility to class actions, MDL proceedings have begun to dominate the federal civil docket. To wit, nearly half of the federal civil caseload is MDL. Although MDL is structurally different from a class action, the procedure replicates — and in many ways complicates — the principal-agent problems that plagued the class action. Like a class action, nearly all MDL cases are resolved by a comprehensive global settlement agreement, but, unlike a class action, in MDL the judge has no authority to reject a settlement agreement as unfair to the potentially thousands of parties ensnared in the litigation. Here, we argue that, given this limitation, the judge should act as an “information-forcing intermediary,” who reserves the right to offer a non-binding opinion about the fairness of the settlement to send an easy-to-understand signal directly to the parties about their lawyers’ performance. Such a signal will mitigate many of the agency problems inherent to MDL and allow parties to exercise informed consent when choosing whether to accept a settlement. More generally, this article is a call for judges to embrace an information-forcing role at the head of consolidated MDL proceedings.
Tuesday, August 16, 2016
As our readers surely know, despite its bulky name, multidistrict litigation (“MDL”) is in the news constantly: litigation over Volkswagen's defeat device, GM’s ignition defect, Toyota’s sudden acceleration, asbestos, and medical drugs and devices (pelvic mesh, Yasmin/Yaz, NuvaRing, Vioxx) are just a few of the higher profile MDLs.
MDL now comprises over 36% of the entire federal civil caseload (that number leaps to 45.6% if you exclude social security and prisoner cases), yet courts and Congress have made it more difficult for these cases to proceed as certified class actions. This litigation doesn’t go away without class certification as many tort reformers believe, it simply persists with far less judicial oversight.
Few rules and little appellate oversight on the one hand, plus multi-million dollar “common-benefit fees” for the lead lawyers who shepherd these cases toward settlement on the other may tempt a cadre of repeat attorneys to fill in the gaps in ways that further their own self interest. (Because there are so many cases involved, judges appoint "lead lawyers" to litigate and negotiate on behalf of the entire group of plaintiffs; if their individual attorney isn’t a lead lawyer, then that attorney has little say in how the litigation is conducted.)
To shed light on some of these issues, my co-author, Margaret Williams, and I have posted a revised version of our paper, Repeat Players in Multidistrict Litigation: The Social Network (forthcoming, Cornell Law Review) on SSRN.
We collected data on who the lead attorneys are (plaintiff and defense side) in all product-liability and sales practice cases that were pending on the MDL docket as of May 2013 (those cases covered a 22-year span), built an adjacency matrix, and employed a two-mode (actors and events) projection of a bipartite network (also known as an affiliation network) to graph the ties between lawyers judicially appointed to leadership positions (the actors) in multidistrict proceedings (the events). (For the non-statistically inclined, this social network analysis is somewhat akin to the kind that Facebook has popularized.)
The point was to reveal what the naked eye cannot see: how those attorneys and MDLs connect to one another. (Detailed, searchable PDFs of the social network with the players and litigations are available here). We also collected data on the publicly available nonclass settlements that repeat players brokered, reviewed news and media accounts of those litigations, and analyzed the common-benefit fees awarded to the lead plaintiffs' lawyers.
Here’s a summary of our key findings:
- Repeat players are prevalent on both the plaintiff and the defense side.
- No matter what measure of centrality we used, a key group of 5 attorneys maintained their elite position within the network.These 5 attorneys may act as gatekeepers or toll takers, for example. This matters considerably, for lead lawyers control the proceeding and negotiate settlements. They can bargain for what may matter to them most: defendants want to end lawsuits, and plaintiffs’ lawyers want to recover for their clients and receive high fee awards along the way.
- By identifying settlement provisions that one might argue principally benefit the repeat players, we examined the publicly available nonclass settlements these elite lawyers designed. Over a 22-year span, we were unable to find any deal that didn’t feature at least one closure provision for defendants, and likewise found that nearly all settlements contained some provision that increased lead plaintiffs’ lawyers’ common-benefit fees. Bargaining for attorneys’ fees with one’s opponent is a stark departure from traditional contingent-fee principles, which are designed to tie lawyers’ fees to their clients’ outcome.
- Based on the evidence available to us, we found reason to be concerned that when repeat players influence the practices and norms that govern multidistrict proceedings—when they “play for rules,” so to speak—the rules they develop may principally benefit them at the plaintiffs’ expense.
A highly concentrated plaintiff and defense bar is nothing new, nor is the disquiet about where that concentration may lead. As scholars have long recognized, repeat play tends to regress our adversarial system from its confrontational roots toward a state of cooperation.
In the criminal context, prosecutors and public defenders routinely work together through plea bargaining, leading them toward mutual accommodation; incumbents form a primary community of interest, whereas clients present secondary challenges and contingencies. As such, adversary features are often overshadowed by regulars’ quid pro quo needs. As Professor Jerome Skolnick has explained, those working group relationships become a social control problem only once they reach a “tipping point where cooperation may shade off into collusion, thereby subverting the ethical basis of the system.” (Social Control in the Adversary System, 11 J. Conflict Resol. 52, 53 (1969)).
As I’ve argued in a separate article, Monopolies in Multidistrict Litigation, we've reached that tipping point in MDL, and these circumstances warrant regulation. Even though MDL judges are the ones who entrench and enable repeat players, they also are integral to the solution.
By tinkering with lead-lawyer selection and compensation methods and instilling automatic remands to a plaintiff’s original court after leaders negotiate master settlements, judges can capitalize on competitive forces already in play. Put simply, the antidote is to reinvigorate competition among plaintiffs’ attorneys and I’ve set forth several specific proposals for doing so in Part III of Monopolies in Multidistrict Litigation.
For interested judges, that article's appendix also contains a Pocket Guide for Leadership Appointment and Compensation, a Sample Leadership Application form, and sample orders for suggesting remand and replacing leaders who ignore adequate representation concerns.
August 16, 2016 in Aggregate Litigation Procedures, Current Affairs, Ethics, Lawyers, Mass Tort Scholarship, Pharmaceuticals - Misc., Prempro, Procedure, Products Liability, Settlement, Vioxx | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, July 2, 2016
Hillel Bavli on the Logic of Comparable-Case Guidance in the Determination of Awards for Pain and Suffering and Punitive Damages
Hillel Bavli (Ph.D. Candidate in Statistics in Law & Governance, Harvard; Counsel, Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP) has posted to SSRN his article, The Logic of Comparable-Case Guidance in the Determination of Awards for Pain and Suffering and Punitive Damages, U. Cin. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2016). Here is the abstract:
Little guidance is provided to fact-finders in arriving at awards for pain and suffering and punitive damages. Such awards are therefore highly variable. This article explains why methods involving comparable-case guidance — information regarding awards in comparable cases as guidance for determining damage awards — are generally effective in reducing unpredictability and improving the reliability of awards for pain and suffering and punitive damages. The article addresses major objections to such methods, and provides relevant legal context and direction for implementation.
Saturday, June 25, 2016
New Book on Class Actions in Context: How Culture, Economics and Politics Shape Collective Litigation
A new book, Class Actions in Context: How Culture, Economics and Politics Shape Collective Litigation, has been published by Edward Elgar Publishing (also available on Amazon). The editors of the book are Associate Dean Deborah Hensler (Stanford Law) and Professors Christopher Hodges (Oxford) and Ianika Tzankova (Tilburg Law). A global group of aggregate-litigation scholars contributed to the book, including Dean Camille Cameron (Dalhousie Law, Canada); Associate Dean Manuel Gomez (Florida International Law); Professors Agustin Barroilhet (U. Chile Law), Naomi Creutzfeldt (Research Fellow, Oxford), Axel Halfmeier (Leuphana U., Germany), Kuo-Chang Huang (Member, Taiwan national congress and formerly of National Cheng-Chi U., Taiwan), Jasminka Kalajdzic (Windsor Law, Canada), Alon Klement (Tel-Aviv U., Israel), Elizabeth Thornburg (SMU Law), and Stefaan Voet (U. Leuven & U. Hasselt, Belgium); and myself.
I authored a chapter, The promise and peril of media and culture: The Toyota unintended acceleration litigation and the Gulf Coast Claims Facility in the United States, and Professor Ianika Tzankova and I co-authored another chapter, The culture of collective litigation: A comparative analysis.
The book was a remarkable and fascinating undertaking, with many of us contributors gathering at several conferences across the globe over recent years to discuss and compare our ongoing research. Here is a brief description of the book:
In recent years collective litigation procedures have spread across the globe, accompanied by hot controversy and normative debate. Yet virtually nothing is known about how these procedures operate in practice. Based on extensive documentary and interview research, this volume presents the results of the first comparative investigation of class actions and group litigation ‘in action’.
Produced by a multinational team of legal scholars, this book spans research from ten different countries in the Americas, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, including common law and civil law jurisdictions. The contributors conclude that to understand how class actions work in practice, one needs to know the cultural factors that shape claiming, the financial arrangements that enable or impede litigation and how political actors react when mass claims erupt. Substantive law and procedural rules matter, but culture, economics and politics matter at least as much.
This book will be of interest to students and scholars of law, business and politics. It will also be of use to public policy makers looking to respond to mass claims; financial analysts looking to understand the potential impact of new legal instruments; and global lawyers who litigate transnationally.
We are honored that Professor Geoffrey Hazard (Emeritus, UC Hastings Law & Penn Law) offered the following comment on the book:
Class Actions in Context is a penetrating analysis of class and group actions worldwide. A group of international scholars brings to bear legal, economic, and political analyses of this evolving judicial remedy. It explores various substantive claims ranging from consumer protection to securities litigation. Drawing on case studies of practice as well as legal analysis, it demonstrates the importance of factors running from litigation finance to background cultural traditions. It is worth study in every legal system.
Thursday, June 16, 2016
On Bloomberg BNA Perry Cooper has an important article on MDL leadership fights entitled "MDLs Led By the Usual Suspects, and Not Everyone is Happy."
Our own Prof. Burch's work is featured. Cooper writes "Burch, a professor at the University of Georgia Law School in Athens, Ga., who specializes in complex litigation, said she's troubled by the number of “repeat players” she sees among attorneys that represent both plaintiffs and defendants in MDLs."
Elizabeth Cabraser, a frequent leader in MDLs, explains: "The problem for getting new players into the leadership is that there are economic barriers to entry,” she said. “To be part of the leadership you have to write a check. You have to put up the money and spend the time.” Cabraser also links the developments in MDLs to changes in the legal culture. As Cooper quotes her: “We all became plaintiffs’ attorneys because we didn't want to work for big firms—we wanted to do our own thing,” she said. “But in an MDL everything is by committee.”
The article also has some good tidbits on Bellwether trials. One plaintiffs lawyer explains: "Large verdicts in bellwether trials can be great from a plaintiff's perspective, Berezofsky said, but they can give clients an expectation that the resolution of their case will be in keeping with the verdict." This lawyer says that for claimants in the middle of the bell curve, an MDL saves money and time, but not for claimants who have more severe injuries because "global settlements generally don't take into account their individual, specialized injuries."
You can find the paper detailing Burch's findings, Monopolies in MDL Litigation, on SSRN.
Brooke Coleman (Seattle) has posted "One Percent Procedure" on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In this election year, political rhetoric about the one percent is already pervasive, as those with the greatest concentrated wealth prosper and the remaining population stagnates. Because of their affluence, the one percent exercise disproportionate control over political and economic systems. This Article argues that federal civil procedure is similarly a one percent regime. The crème de la crème of the bench and bar, along with equally exclusive litigants, often engage in high-stakes, complex civil litigation. It is this type of litigation that dominates both the elite experience and the public perception of what civil litigation is. This litigation is not particularly common, however; while expensive and well known, it is in the minority. Yet this litigation and the individuals engaged in it have an incongruent influence on how the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and procedural doctrine develop. They create one percent procedure.
This Article interrogates and connects disparate phenomena related to civil litigation, including the recent discovery amendments and the rise of multidistrict litigation. It demonstrates that the elite — those who are deeply steeped in complex, high-stakes litigation — are setting the agenda and determining the rules for how the entire civil litigation game is played. It further argues that the benefits of a one percent procedure system — notably expertise of the participants — are not worth the costs; indeed, that expertise can be detrimental to the design of a civil litigation system.
As in politics and economics, a system that gives too much control to the one percent risks undervaluing and underserving the remaining ninety-nine. Using social and political science, the Article argues that the homogenous policymaking of one percent procedure creates suboptimal results. The Article concludes that the structures giving rise to one percent procedure must be modified and proposes a set of reforms intended to allow the ninety-nine percent representation in, and access to, the process of constructing our shared civil litigation system.
Sunday, May 29, 2016
Professor Alexandra Lahav (Connecticut Law), who is also an editor of the Mass Tort Litigation Blog, has posted to SSRN her forthcoming article, The Roles of Litigation in American Democracy, 65 Emory L.J. (forthcoming 2016). Here is the abstract:
Adjudication is usually understood as having two functions: dispute resolution and law declaration. This Article presents the process of litigation as a third, equally important function. Through the repeated performance of litigation, participants perform rule of law values and in so doing, form a collective democratic identity. Litigation does this in five ways. First, it allows individuals, even the most downtrodden, to obtain recognition from a governmental officer (a judge) of their claims. Second, it promotes the production of reasoned arguments about legal questions and presentation of proofs in public, subject to cross examination and debate. Third, it promotes transparency by forcing information required to present proofs and arguments to be revealed. Fourth, it aids in the enforcement of the law in two ways: by requiring wrongdoers to answer for their conduct to the tribunal and by revealing information that is used by other actors to enforce or change existing regulatory regimes. And fifth, litigation enables citizens to serve as adjudicators on juries. Unlike other process-based theories of the benefits of litigation, the theory presented here does not hinge on the sociological legitimacy of procedures or outcomes. The democratic benefits of these performances ought to be considered in the reform of procedural rules.
Professor Christopher Mueller (Colorado Law) has posted to SSRN his forthcoming article, Taking a Second Look at MDL Product Liability Settlements: Somebody Needs to Do It, 65 U. Kan. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2017). Here is the abstract:
This Article examines the forces that lead to the settlement of product liability cases gathered under the MDL statute for pretrial. The MDL procedure is ill-suited to this use, and does not envision the gathering of the underlying cases as a means of finally resolving them. Motivational factors affecting judges and lawyers have produced these settlements, and the conditions out of which they arise do not give confidence that they are fair or adequate. This Article concedes that MDL settlements are likely here to stay, and argues that we need a mechanism to check such settlements for fairness and adequacy. The best way to do so is to allow collateral review of such settlements in suits brought by dissatisfied claimants.
Thursday, April 28, 2016
In my first post on Monopolies in Multidistrict Litigation, I noted that lead lawyers and defendants seem to benefit in tandem from the settlements they negotiate. This second post, Part II, explains how repeat players on both plaintiff and defense sides have perfected a fundamental shift in settlement design.
As I elaborate on pages 19-21, the demise of the mass tort class action makes it more difficult for defendants to achieve holistic closure, for MDL settlements technically bind only those litigants before the court. But defendants have been able to regain a greater degree of finality through a foundational shift in settlement construction: unlike traditional settlements between plaintiffs and defendants, all twelve deals in the dataset were agreements between lead lawyers and defendants.
As such, these deals position lead plaintiffs’ lawyers as settlement gatekeepers, for defendants will not make better offers to others without the threat of trial; doing so would work against their closure goal. These new deals then serve as a mandatory gateway for anyone wanting to settle, and typically require non-lead attorneys to become signatories alongside their clients. Accordingly, all master settlement agreements in the dataset aimed some provisions at plaintiffs’ attorneys and some at their clients. As a later post will explore, it's the provisions targeting plaintiffs' attorneys that raise the most ethical problems.
Making deals with plaintiffs’ attorneys masterfully furthers defendants’ end game in two ways.
First, the agreements impose uniform endorsement requirements on participating attorneys to discourage them from “cherry picking,” a practice in which lawyers settle most cases, but continue litigating those with the strongest claims or most sympathetic facts. By requiring a high percentage of plaintiffs to accept the settlement offer for it to take effect and insisting that individual attorneys recommend that all their clients settle (including clients who had not yet sued or who were pursuing relief elsewhere), defense attorneys essentially conditioned plaintiffs’ attorneys fees on achieving their closure aims.
A plaintiff’s attorney is either “all in” and would collect significant contingent fees from all her settling clients, or “all out” and would have to spend significant resources litigating individual cases. As such, recommendation provisions alter the typical contingent fee model where an attorney’s recovery increases alongside her clients’ recovery and instead ties plaintiffs’ attorneys’ financial self-interest to each other and to the entire claimant base.
This shift also allows defendants to reach some plaintiffs who are outside of the federal court’s jurisdiction, and others who haven’t yet filed suit (through case census provisions - see pp. 27-29). It thereby recaptures some of the finality that class actions once offered through binding absent class members.
Second, when combined with the defendant's ability to walkaway from the deal if too few claimants consent to settle, provisions aimed at plaintiffs' attorneys (attorney-recommendation provisions, attorney' withdrawal provisions - see pp. 19-26) collectively reduce the demand for legal representation. The settlement effectively becomes the only “game” in town.
Like oligopolists, leaders are able to thwart competition and reduce demand by using attorney withdrawal and recommendation provisions to restrict the legal services market (at least for those with similar allegations against the same defendant). When defendants threaten to abandon the deal if too few plaintiffs participate, and participating attorneys must recommend the deal to all of their clients and withdraw from representing those who refuse, leaders can regulate the legal service being offered and control a sufficiently large share of that market
In this sense, master settlements can recreate bottleneck problems where dominant firms raise competitors’ costs by obtaining exclusionary rights; once defendants negotiate master settlements with plaintiffs’ leadership, that agreement typically becomes the only settlement option.
Why should we be concerned? Apart from inherent economic concerns that arise under these conditions, the next post will explore why provisions targeting attorneys are ethically troubling.
Thursday, April 21, 2016
I've spent the better part of the past year and a half analyzing the publicly available nonclass aggregate settlements that have taken place in multidistrict litigation alongside leadership appointments, common-benefit fees, and, where available, recovery to the plaintiffs. This has given me an in-depth look at what's happening (or has happened) in Propulsid, Vioxx, Yasmin/Yaz, DePuy ASR Hip Implant, Fosamax (2243), American Medical Systems pelvic mesh litigation, Biomet, NuvaRing, and Actos. I've also analyzed fee practices in Baycol, Ortho Evra, Avandia, Mentor Corp. ObTape, Prempro, Chantix, Pradaxa, and Ethicon Pelvic Repair.
This endeavor has been deeply unsettling for a variety of ethical, doctrinal, and systemic reasons. Professors Erichson and Zipursky's prior work on Vioxx opened our eyes to troubling provisions in that deal, but I had no idea how widespread the problems were or how they had evolved over time from deal to deal until now.
Propulsid appears to be the primogenitor, for all subsequent deals in the data replicated some aspect of its closure provisions. But Propulsid is extraordinarily troubling: 6,012 plaintiffs abandoned their right to sue in court in favor of settling. Only 37 of them (0.6 percent) recovered any settlement money through the physician-controlled claims review process, receiving little more than $6.5 million in total. Lead lawyers, on the other hand, received over $27 million in common-benefit fees through a deal they negotiated directly with the defendant (and had the court approve). Sadly, that's just the tip of the iceberg.
I posted the fruits of my labor on SSRN today in a piece titled, Monopolies in Multidistrict Litigation. It's a 70+ page tomb, so I'll be covering specific aspects of it over the next few weeks in a series of blog posts. It's not only an indictment of current practices and procedures, but it offers myriad ways for judges to improve MDL practice. It even comes complete with handy pocket guides for judges, leadership application forms, and leadership applicant scoring sheets in the appendix.
For those of you who love data, there are several tables that may be of interest: Table 1: Provisions Benefitting Defendants Occurring within the Analyzed Settlements on p. 20; Table 2: Common-Benefit Fee Practices on p. 33; and Table 3: Common-Benefit Awards and Nonclass Claimant Recovery within the Data on p. 48.
Today's post simply introduces the paper, so here is the summary:
When transferee judges receive a multidistrict proceeding, they select a few lead plaintiffs’ lawyers to efficiently manage litigation and settlement negotiations. That decision gives those attorneys total control over all plaintiffs’ claims and rewards them richly in common-benefit fees. It’s no surprise then that these are coveted positions, yet empirical evidence confirms that the same attorneys occupy them time and again. When asked, repeat players chalk it up to their experience and skill—no one can manage and negotiate as well as they can. Off the record, however, any plaintiff’s lawyer who’s been involved in multidistrict litigation will explain repeat players’ dominance with stories of backroom deals, infighting, and payoffs. Yet, when judges focus on cooperation and consensus in selecting leaders and then defer to those leaders in awarding common-benefit fees, they dampen open rivalry and enable repeat actors to mete out social and financial sanctions on challengers.
Anytime repeat players exist and exercise both oligopolistic leadership control across multidistrict proceedings and monopolistic power within a single proceeding, there is concern that they will use their dominance to enshrine practices and norms that benefit themselves at consumers’ (or here, clients’) expense. Apprehensiveness should increase when defense lawyers are repeat players too, as they are in multidistrict litigation. And anxiety should peak when the circumstances exhibit these anti-competitive characteristics, but lack regulation as they do here. Without the safeguards built into class certification, judicial monitoring and appellate checks disappear. What remains is a system that permits lead lawyers to act, at times, like a cartel.
Basic economic principles demonstrate that noncompetitive markets can result in higher prices and lower outputs, and agency costs chronicle ways in which unmonitored agents’ self-interest can lead them astray. By analyzing the nonclass deals that repeat players design, this Article introduces new empirical evidence that multidistrict litigation is not immune to market or agency principles. It demonstrates that repeat players on both sides continually achieve their goals in tandem—defendants end massive suits and lead plaintiffs’ lawyers increase their common-benefit fees. But this exchange may result in lower payouts to plaintiffs, stricter evidentiary burdens in claims processing, or higher plaintiff-participation requirements in master settlements.
These circumstances warrant regulation, for both multidistrict litigation and class actions are critical to redressing corporate wrongdoing. Even though judges entrench and enable repeat players, they are integral to the solution. By tinkering with selection and compensation methods and instilling automatic remands after leaders negotiate master settlements, judges can capitalize on competitive forces already in play. By tapping into the vibrant rivalries within the plaintiffs’ bar, judges can use dynamic market solutions to remap the existing regulatory landscape by invigorating competition and playing to attorneys’ strengths.
As always, your comments are welcome (the draft is still just that, a draft) - please email any comments or corrections to me eburch at uga.edu. More soon...
Saturday, April 9, 2016
Professor Briana Rosenbaum (Tennessee Law) has posted to SSRN the abstract for her article, The RICO Trend in Class Action Warfare, 102 Iowa L. Rev. (forthcoming 2016). Here's the abstract:
The class action device has been under attack for decades. Recent Supreme Court cases have further enervated class actions, and the current Congress is considering both class action and tort reform. Recently, defendants in aggregate litigation have employed an additional tactic by filing civil RICO cases against plaintiffs’ counsel alleging they fraudulently concealed a few baseless lawsuits among larger sets of claims. The predicate acts in those RICO cases consist solely of litigation activities: the filing of complaints in mass actions and related litigation documents. Members of the defense bar have made no secret of the fact that these RICO cases are part of a larger strategy to prevent plaintiffs’ attorneys from bringing large-scale class actions and other aggregate litigation. Despite the rich literature on class actions, this recent aggressive use of RICO by the defense bar and corporate interest groups to punish plaintiffs’ attorneys for the alleged fraudulent filing of aggregate litigation has gone relatively unexplored.
This Article pulls together several previously unassociated areas of law-including RICO, Rule 11, class actions, SLAPP motions, and asbestos litigation-to develop a model of the RICO trend. It then argues that holding plaintiffs’ attorneys liable under civil RICO solely for litigation activities is illegal, results in the lamentable federalization of state common law, and leads to improper forum shopping. The RICO trend also avoids legitimate state protections for litigation activity and is a thinly-veiled attempt by the defense bar to further weaken class actions by targeting the plaintiffs’ attorneys themselves. Just as critically, this use of RICO punishes the aggregate litigation device itself, rather than the underlying fraudulent conduct; as a remedy for frivolous aggregate litigation conduct, it is both over- and under-inclusive. This Article concludes by proposing several alternatives, including effectively barring any civil RICO action targeting attorneys’ pure litigation activities without systemic wrongdoing.
Professors Jef P. B. De Mot (Ghent University), Michael G. Faure (University of Maastricht - Faculty of Law & Erasmus School of Law), and Louis T. Visscher (Rotterdam Institute of Law and Economics & Erasmus School of Law) have posted to SSRN their article, Third Party Financing and its Alternatives: An Economic Appraisal. Here's the abstract:
In this contribution we provide an economic approach to third party funding. We first explain why third party funding emerges. It can be considered as a remedy for the market failure that can occur in cases of so-called dispersed losses where rational apathy may occur, and also when individuals do not bring claims solely because they do not have sufficient funds. However, we argue that although TPF can help solve market failures, it can create also problems of its own. All the classic economic problems, such as the principal-agent problem, information and transaction costs may jeopardize the effectiveness of TPF. However, we argue that remedies can be designed to increase the effectiveness. We further compare TPF to other mechanisms that could equally cure the market failures, such as legal expenses insurance (LEI) and the transfer of claims. We also briefly compare TPF to contingency fee arrangements, although this is not the central focus of our contribution.
Professor Adam Steinman (Alabama Law) has posted to SSRN his article, The Rise and Fall of Plausibility Pleading?, 69 Vanderbilt L. Rev. 333 (2016). Here's the abstract:
The Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly and its 2009 decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal unleashed a torrent of scholarly reaction. Commentators charged these decisions with adopting a new pleading regime, "plausibility pleading," that upended the notice-pleading approach that had long prevailed in federal court. Whether a complaint could survive a motion to dismiss — it was argued — now depends on whether the court found the complaint plausible, allowing courts to second-guess a complaint's allegations without any opportunity for discovery or consideration of actual evidence. Lower courts began to cite Twombly and Iqbal at a remarkably high rate, and empirical work revealed their effect on both dismissal rates and litigant behavior.
Although Twombly and Iqbal were troubling on many levels, the rise of a newly restrictive form of plausibility pleading was not inevitable. There was — and still is — a path forward that would retain the notice-pleading approach set forth in the text of the Federal Rules themselves and confirmed by pre-Twombly case law. This Article describes this reading of Twombly and Iqbal, and explains how more recent Supreme Court pleading decisions are consistent with this understanding. It is crucial, however, that these post-Iqbal decisions and the approach to pleading they reflect receive the same attention that accompanied Twombly, Iqbal, and the rise of plausibility pleading. Otherwise the narrative that Twombly and Iqbal compel a more restrictive pleading standard may become further entrenched, compounding the adverse effects of those problematic decisions.
Sunday, February 21, 2016
Professor Joanna Shepherd (Emory) has posted to SSRN her article, An Empirical Survey of No-Injury Class Actions. Here is the abstract:
This report empirically examines the allocation of settlements and awards in no-injury class actions among plaintiffs, attorneys, and cy pres funds. The results are based on my study of 432 no-injury class action settlements and trial awards from 2005-2015. The study finds that, on average, 60 percent of the total monetary award paid by the defendants was allocated to the plaintiffs’ class and 37.9 percent was allocated to attorneys’ fees. However, because many settlements disperse the unclaimed portion of the settlement fund to a cy pres fund, the funds available to class members at the time of settlement may significantly overstate the actual amount class members ultimately receive. Although 60 percent of the total monetary award may be available to class members, in reality, they typically receive less than 9 percent of the total. In comparison, class counsel receives an average of 37.9 percent of available funds, over 4 times the funds typically distributed to the class. A result in which plaintiffs recover less than 10 percent of the award, with the rest going to lawyers or unrelated groups, clearly does not achieve the compensatory goals of class actions. Instead, the costs of no-injury class actions are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices, lower product quality, and reduced innovation.
Friday, January 29, 2016
There's obviously been a lot in the news about multidistrict litigation--from Lance Cooper's allegations in GM to the recent selection of the plaintiffs' leadership slate in VW. But what do we really know about the settlements that come out of those large MDLs? On one hand, the answer is not much. Many of the deals are secret because they are private. But sometimes those private deals are nevertheless publicly available. And when they are, we read them. And analyze them.
The results can be a little disturbing. Given all of the hubbub over Cooper's allegations in GM (see Lahav's post), my co-author Margaret Williams and I decided to go ahead and release the findings of our recent study, Repeat Players in Multidistrict Litigation: The Social Network, on SSRN.
While past studies have considered repeat play on the plaintiffs’ side, this study is the first comprehensive empirical investigation of repeat play on both sides. It won't surprise most readers to learn that we found robust evidence of repeat play among both plaintiff and defense attorneys. What may be more interesting is that we used social-network analysis to demonstrate that a cohesive multidistrict-litigation leadership network exists, which connects people, law firms, and the proceedings themselves.
While repeat play may not be surprising for those in the know, the fact that repeat players exist matters considerably. Lead lawyers control the litigation, dominate negotiations, and design settlements.
To consider repeat players’ influence, we examined the publicly available nonclass settlements these attorneys negotiated, looking for provisions that one might argue principally benefit the attorneys, and not one-shot plaintiffs. By conditioning the deal on achieving a certain claimant-participation rate and shifting the deal-making entities from plaintiffs and defendants to lead lawyers and defendants, repeat players tied all plaintiffs’ attorneys’ financial interests to defendants’ ability to achieve closure.
Over a 22-year span, we were unable to find any publicly available nonclass settlement that didn’t feature at least one closure provision (which benefits the defendant), and likewise found that nearly all settlements contained some provision that increased lead lawyers’ fees. Based on the limited settlements available to us, we found reason to be concerned that when repeat players influence the practices and norms that govern multidistrict proceedings—when they “play for rules,” so to speak—the practices they develop may principally benefit them at the expense of one-shot plaintiffs.
Of course, our research doesn't speak directly to the allegations in GM, but it does make those allegations far less surprising. And if you compare our list of repeat players to the names of those appointed in Volkswagen, you'll see a lot of familiar names.